October 30, 2009 / Filmwell
A few thoughts and remainders after seeing La nana (The Maid).
June 9, 2009
What did you learn about filmmaking through this experience that will be useful to you in future projects?
I often feel like I have forgotten much of what I learned through the experience. I recently shot another film, and it felt like a first film all over again. Maybe it’s good to remain on edge with every film, but Munyurangabo was very stressful and exhausting, and Lucky Life—the new film—was moreso.
One aspect that stays with me is that the subject matter needs to be central to the film, and that each film should serve the subject.
I tried to make Munyurangabo a cinema of listening rather than self-expression. I think this was what helped us make a successful film. I didn’t want to tie the Rwandese actors and crew to my vision, but continued to ask how the actors should act, how the dialog should be. It felt like a documentary approach at times.
Why did you choose to use film instead of video? What, for you, are the advantages to film? (The result, by the way, is gorgeous.)
Several reasons went into this decision.
The first is that I knew I would not be using any lighting, and Rwanda has a very bright sun. Film has a greater latitude than video, meaning that film can capture a scene that has very bright light and dark light in the same image. Video would either blow out the bright spots to look like pure white or all the areas in shadows would carry no detail.
Second, the electricity in rural areas is sparse, and cameras built in the 60s and 70s are made with very few electronic parts. I only needed to charge my belt battery two or three times during the shoot.
The third reason is that film carries with it a better rendition of color and a type of poetic look that comes from the film grain and the way it looks in projection. I thought a 1970s look would be interesting for the film—to film it in 16mm, the way news reports were made before the advent of video. I thought this would create a more timeless look, since the film, in some ways, is meant to play like a Rwandese fable.
Film is much more expensive, of course. But it helped keep us honest in treating this project very seriously and professionally.
I’ve read that you’re wrapping up your next film, Lucky Life.
On June 15th I go in and finish the final cut and edit the film. From there we’re sending the print to Paris. They have a lot of people who plan to watch the film. In Paris, we have a sales agent who’s basically representing the film.
Does Lucky Life feel like a progression from Munyurangabo? Are there things you began in Rwanda that you’re continuing in this project? Or was this like starting over?
It feels like a little bit of both.
A few things from Munyurangabo inspired me [in making Lucky Life.] One was treating the film like poetry in a way, or elevating poetry to being the driving force behind the film. I think I tried to that do more in Lucky Life. And the actual dramatic structure of the film—it’s very much based off the poem by Gerald Stern called “Lucky Life.”
But in other ways people who have seen the film say that it’s very, very different. I think that that’s true. People seem to be surprised that the same filmmaker is involved at times. So, yeah—I don’t know what to make of that. I think it might come as a surprise to people who were fans of Munyurangabo and might be expecting something similar.
Munyurangabo is already inspiring reviewers to compare it to films by Terrence Malick, the Dardennes, and even Spike Lee. What filmmakers—and what films—inspire you in your own filmmaking? Is your filmmaking influenced by painters or other forms of art?
The influences change with every film, and I’m a bit of a film nerd. Malick and the Dardennes were a big influence, but I’m not too familiar with Spike Lee. Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Bresson were also filmmakers whose work I revisited before going to Rwanda.
Chaplin films are my favorites of all-time, and I love watching Chaplin with my students in Rwanda; we imitate him sometimes when we are bored.
With Lucky Life, I was inspired mostly by poetry—Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, Gerald Stern, and Li-Young Lee. Sam Anderson pointed me to the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson.
I’m sorry if this is becoming one long, pretentious list. As a science major in college, I never encountered these great works; discovering them now has given me much life.
For the next projects I’m developing, I’m falling in love with old genre films, and I’m interested in departing from cinema as poetry and moving on to a cinema of play and energy for the audience.
That’s interesting. Most filmmakers progress from genre films to art films. After Lucky Life, you’re interested in going the other way. Why?
I guess there are a number of reasons for that. I think the primary one is that recently I was just thinking about cinema, and thinking about some of the filmmakers that I’ve enjoyed watching.
These days I’m very much excited about a lot of the filmmakers who were working in Hollywood back in the 50’s and 60’s or even the 40’s and 50’s. I felt that [these filmmakers] were always needing to work in this tension between what they desire and what the audience desires. That’s kind of the difference between a cinema of poetry, as I put it, and genre cinema.
The cinema of poetry, or as some people call it “art house cinema,” [or] independent cinema… it tends to be focused on the filmmaker and the expression of the director. Whereas Hollywood films these days are very much focused on what the audience wants. I’d like to think that both of those don’t have to be so separate and so much at odds with each other, and that somehow within that tension you can find a good film.
I think they did it quite well in the 40’s and 50’s. But these days, it’s far too much geared towards one side. I guess that’s what started cropping up as I was doing the festival run with Munyurangabo, and now preparing the run with Lucky Life.
I’d like to go more to the audience with the film. Hopefully that doesn’t sound as if I’m compromising. I feel as if though that could be a very positive thing.
If you were going to introduce Munyurangabo to an audience that isn’t necessarily accustomed to art films, how would you introduce it to them? How do you approach introducing contemplative cinema like Bresson’s or Dreyer’s?
[I’d tell people that] Munyurangabo … is very minimal, and to not expect anything very much in the way of spectacle. The storytelling style is very understated.
What I like to say to people when I am introducing either Bresson or Dreyer is that … you shouldn’t be trying to figure it out as you’re watching it. Much in the same way that a child does when they’re listening to a story, or learning something new, or encountering something new—just take it for what it is. Try not to be guessing the whole time, ‘What does this film mean? What is the message?’
Sometimes you get this sort of magical experience of what’s called ‘the transcendent cinema’, and sometimes you don’t find it. Yeah, that’s what I’d like to think these films do. A lot of them show fairly mundane things, and somehow all of these very random images build up to this very dramatic payoff for whoever is watching—one that makes you feel as though you are transcending all those situations. Some sort of revelation is reached within them.
That type of cinema really excites me. I feel that when a director is able to accomplish something like that, it’s almost the most supreme form of cinema.
A lot of Ozu’s films are like that for me.
Did you discover this love of transcendent cinema in film school?
It definitely happened during film school.
I had a professor who I was very really close to. His name is Kevin Hanson at the University of Utah. And one day he talked about the different forms of cinema that are out there. Then he started talking about this Paul Schrader’s book about transcendence in film. Kevin was a big fan of Ozu and Bresson, and he was always trying to get the directing students or students of production to look at these styles and to consider them as a way of making films.
So I started watching a lot of those films and found that, yeah, they were very moving for me. And that’s basically when it happened—during my two years at film school.
What do you like to focus on when you teach?
I think the thing I might like most is teaching students who are just starting to learn filmmaking. I’ve taught intro courses and I feel like I enjoying teaching those the most. I’ve also done a lot of TA work [on] film history for instance, and auteur theory. I enjoy that side of cinema as well to look at past works and past directors.
But yeah, I do like teaching beginners. I think there’s something great about the beginning steps of anyone who is starting to make a film and just realizing the possibilities and limitations of it.
Maybe it’s influenced a bit by the professor I had when I was at Yale. The last year, I took a course with Michael Roemer. He had us go out and get images of movement, or images that highlight one subject or another. He didn’t care so much about the technical aspect of filmmaking. It was always about the mis en scene, or what could you see in the frame, [or] the way in which we edit these images together. I felt that that class gave me a good [lesson] in realizing that’s the core and meat of filmmaking.
So when I’m teaching, that’s what I try to emphasize.
I noticed that a lot of film instruction tends to end up straying towards the very technical side of filmmaking. That ends up being more of a distraction, I feel, than actually helping to learn cinema.
I’m curious about your experience working with Youth With a Mission in Rwanda. Were any of the YWAM workers involved in making the movie?
YWAM workers allowed me to spend time with their various ministries—HIV/AIDS relief, street kids mentorship, orphans and widows assistance—which helped me to do research for the film.
Also, I partnered with one of the full-time staff members named Serieux Kanamugire, who leads a youth ministry (which includes ages 12-30). He gathered the students who wanted to learn video production, around fifteen total, and they became my students and the crew for the film.
I continue to work with Serieux when I return to Kigali and recently started a video production business with these students.
The word “mission,” as it is related to Christianity, is a pretty loaded term. I suspect that some may imagine YWAM’s work in Rwanda as an aggressive program of evangelism and conversion. What is your impression of their work in that area?
Well, this could be debated for many hours.
Evangelism and conversion are efforts within any organization—secular or religious—when Western organizations attempt to bring change in Africa. A conversion of values and beliefs is a natural part of the effort to solve vast problems within the continent. Sometimes these values are about environmental conservation and the protection of wildlife. Sometimes the values are about water usage and disease prevention.
This answer could fall into the polarizing area of whether or not the evangelical church or organizations such as YWAM have a subversive agenda. But I want to avoid all of those debates and just note that the vast majority of Rwandese are Christians, with one of the highest percentages in the world. As a result, YWAM’s Christian evangelism and “spreading the gospel” resembles the good efforts of other secular groups: prevention of HIV/AIDs, curbing drugs use among street kids, offering alternatives to prostitution, and helping find solutions to extreme poverty. “Gospel work” as an act of sacrifice, service, and love—I don’t think anyone would argue that this isn’t what Jesus Christ would embody. The divisive debates can distract from all of this.
To put it another way, George W. Bush is a big hero in East Africa because his African relief policies have been among the most generous and effective measures of any leader in the world. Barack Obama is also a big hero for what he embodies and his roots to East Africa. Rwanda is a place where the debates about political correctness and ideologies are irrelevant in light of the need at hand; the only question becomes, “Is this helping?” I am a big supporter of YWAM Rwanda because of this.
So many films made by Christians are “preachy” and blatantly “evangelistic,” but your film avoids any hint of that. Did you ever have any pressure from your friends and contacts to emphasize religious issues in the film?
YWAM Rwanda never gave that pressure, nor did any Christian friends or family members here in the US.
I am also a Christian and have been active in a number of churches since becoming a filmmaker. Often there is an implicit misunderstanding that I must be a filmmaker who is trying to spread a message or evangelize with my films. I have a lot of opinions on the way Christians should approach the arts, but I think it’s a very subjective idea, so I don’t intend to criticize.
My favorite music, literature, films, and paintings are usually not Christian. And the Christian artists who I find to be brilliant aren’t usually embraced as Christian writers or filmmakers by other Christians—Flannery O’Connor, for example, or Carlos Theodore Dreyer.
If my faith is integral to me, I believe it will show up in my work, but I’m very partial about what a work of art should be. I don’t get anything out of films or music with a hidden agenda; audiences are smarter than that. Nor do I enjoy art that is intended for Christians alone.
Is there anything about your own experience, growing up in on a farm in Arkansas with parents from Korea, that might incline you to approach a story like Munyurangabo differently than other American filmmakers? Or perhaps, to be interested in a different story?
I’m not sure other American filmmakers would have enjoyed filming the farming scene in Munyurangabo as much as I did. A lot of my memories of farm work involve me working with my dad and hoping that the way I work gains his approval. Perhaps that scene is autobiographical in a way. To be honest, I only just came up with this connection now.
I don’t know how the Korean aspect plays into it at all, and I don’t want to psychologize too much.
I have felt like a foreigner in many places. For instance, when I first got to Yale and was surrounded by one of the wealthiest and intellectual student bodies in the US. I don’t know how any of this links together, but I also felt very foreign in Arkansas because we were the only minority family in my town for the longest time. When I’ve traveled in developing world countries in Asia, I’ve enjoyed the act of trying to be at home, as I have in Arkansas or at Yale. In Rwanda too, where I felt very much at home by the end of my stay.
I also like traveling in places where farming is still a large part of the lifestyle even though I wanted to move far away from the farm when I was young. For a while, I thought this meant I would become a missionary doctor in a developing world clinic, but I turned to filmmaking instead, mostly because I don’t like science. I still feel the need to escape to non-modern places or nature here and there.
Anyhow, I think all of this helped me to know that farming and simple daily moments—breakfast, fetching water, telling stories—are worth filming, and not the bloodshed and violence that we assume makes Africa interesting.
Is there anything in particular you’d like to see happen as Munyurangabo reaches more people?
Going through this entire process has let me see that cinema from Africa is always going through this threat of almost disappearing. There have been a lot of films from Hollywood that are made in Africa, but that’s no true replacement. There is a lot of great cinema coming out of Africa. And it would be great if those films were given much more attention than they are now. If Munyurangabo can point people towards cinema in Africa, I’d be very happy.
I know people mention [African filmmaker] Ousmane Sembene often when they talk about Munyurangabo. To be honest I only discovered Sembene a few months after we got back from Rwanda. I felt as though I saw in his films the types of works that I wished my students in Rwanda could make someday.
Where should I start in watching Sembene’s work?
One of his later films is quite good. Moolaadé.
I’m thrilled that Film Movement has made the film available to a wider audience. I’ve been very impressed with their collection and vision.What has it been like working with them?
I have become a great fan of Film Movement, which is easy to say because they decided to distribute the film. But their love of cinema and desire to bring overlooked films to a greater audience is very courageous.
We were told a few times by other major distributors that Munyurangabo could not be sold in the US because it has three difficult aspects: subtitles, non-famous Africans, and “arthouse” storytelling. The independent film world can be progressive in raw content, but not so much in what is sold. Many distributors confuse “controversy” with “progress,” so charting new territory is often a matter of innovative sex and violence. The market itself tends not to be very progressive. There are many films such as Ballast or Treeless Mountain that deserve a wider audience.
Anyhow, this is supposed to be about Film Movement. Part of my contract with them is that I have to say they are 100% perfect and the best distribution company in the world. I’m just kidding of course. But I have been very happy with them.
Munyurangabo is a hard sell—I can tell that they are running with the film the way I have, as a labor of love, and I would like to think that all cinema could be approached in the same way.
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For more on Munyuragabo, and the experience of Lee Isaac Chung, read Darren Hughes’ excellent article “The Storm of Progress”, in Sojourners Magazine, June 2008 (Vol. 37, No. 5, pp. ).
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.